The War on Private Property
No strategic business planner has ever created a mission statement as powerful in its message, as comprehensive in its scope, and as utterly unassailable as the mother of all mission statements, the Constitution.
The Constitution unequivocally established justice and liberty as guiding principles of our nation. If the framers could only see how far our nation has deviated from their founding principles, they would be appalled. Justice and liberty have been supplanted by state sanctioned theft for the purpose of revenue enhancement. Confiscatory tax policies are no longer sufficient to satisfy the government’s voracious appetite for revenue. A more insidious method has been devised to separate the hard working American from his money. It’s called asset seizure and forfeiture.
Previously used as a weapon in the war on drugs and restricted to indictable offenses, asset seizure and forfeiture laws have opened the door for more nefarious applications of these types of laws in civil cases. As a defendant in a civil case, property owners do not enjoy the same advantages as criminals like murderers or rapists do. Criminals are innocent until proven guilty. With “reverse onus” however, civil defendants bear the burden of proving their innocence. They are presumed guilty, and the presumption of guilt is all that is necessary for the government to seize the property of the accused. In other words, they are guilty unless they are able to prove that they are innocent.
Criminal defendants are entitled to a court appointed attorney if they cannot afford one. Civil defendants on the other hand, must pay an attorney to challenge forfeiture or they must try the case themselves. Furthermore, unlike criminal defendants, civil defendants must pay a significant filing fee based on the value of the seized asset, in order to initiate litigation. The cost for a property owner to reclaim his property can be as high as $10,000 and can take as long as three years.
Essentially, expanding asset forfeiture to include petty misdemeanors raises relatively innocuous infractions to the level of murder. The difference is that civil defendants lack the protections of due process, which are enjoyed by accused murderers.
This shift to civil seizures is rife with the potential for abuse. Law enforcement agencies have a huge incentive to seize property since they receive 100% of the funds raised. The exception occurs when law enforcement shares the spoils with paid informants, who may receive up to 25% of the value of forfeited assets. Can you say “conflict of interest”?
So, who can actually take your stuff? The FBI, IRS, FDA, and state and local law enforcement agencies can seize your property. What stuff can they take? They can seize your house, car, boat, Jet Ski, skis, motorcycle, jewelry, cash, and anything else associated with the incident in question. Whose stuff can they take? They can seize the property of anyone, even if they have never been charged with, or convicted of, any crime. Did a passenger in your car have marijuana? Guilty. Forfeit car. Did a narcotics detection dog at the airport alert when you walked by because the change the store clerk handed you earlier had traces of cocaine on it? Guilty. Forfeit cash, and maybe even your laptop too.
Egregious cases of abuse are occurring at an alarmingly frequent rate. Jerrie Braithwaite, single mother of three from Washington D.C., loaned her car to an acquaintance in January 2012. The friend was pulled over, searched, and found to be in possession of drugs. Her car was seized. A year later, it remains to be seen if she will ever get her car back. Also in D.C., firefighter Keith Chung had his vehicle seized in June 2012, when Metro DC police allegedly found a firearm on Chung’s passenger. Chung was forced to carry his firefighting gear to work on public transportation. The sole source of support for his elderly grandmother and disabled mother, Chung was powerless to do anything until a pro bono attorney filed for a preliminary injunction to secure the return of Chung’s vehicle.
Currently, Hawaii State Senate Bill SB 1342, which would extend seizure and forfeiture laws to misdemeanors in the Aloha State, is being debated despite the well publicized cases of abuse elsewhere. The lust for money seems more compelling than the obvious flaws in the legislation. It is apparent that confiscatory revenue enhancement schemes trump justice and liberty. Simply put, they want your stuff. This type of legislation opens up a Pandora’s box and leads to many unanswered questions. Will they confiscate my home if my teenager is caught doing drugs there? If I am disturbing the peace because my music is too loud, will they take my iPod? Will they confiscate my dog if I don’t clean up his waste? How can I prove that I DID pick up his poop and that the feces in question are from someone else’s dog? How much would a DNA analysis on dog excrement cost?
I doubt that the founding fathers had envisioned such scenarios when they extolled the blessings of liberty. Word to the wise, not only is Big Brother watching you, but he’s got his eyes on your stuff.